Over the last couple of years, there has been great activity under the Tulpule flyover or the King’s Circle flyover that runs from Dadar TT to Matunga in Mumbai. The space under the flyover, close to a kilometre-long strip of unclaimed land, is being beautified by the city’s municipal corporation. While the proposal for beautification made the rounds of the bureaucracy, the space-starved residents of Matunga had used the empty strip for jogging, cycling and other physical activities.

But as the process of beautification has gained momentum, fences have gone up on both sides, space has been created for plants, there is going to be a jogging track modelled on the flow of the River Narmada, a separate area for children, an indoor activity centre and even a volleyball court.

This hasn’t been without protests from the residents. Earlier, people could cross the road from anywhere, now they are left to cross it from openings in the fences. The jogging track has small lamps on either side but they are so close to each other at places that it would be difficult to navigate through them. Still, since it is difficult to forecast how citizens use or navigate a public space, what is being called “the city’s first theme park under a flyover” could still become a thriving, enjoyable one.

After the flyover was built, the residents were sure they did not want encroachment under it, not from the government – in the form of a parking lot – and not from the poor inhabitants of Mumbai who could begin living there. This begs the question, in a city starved of land and public spaces, whom does the space under bridges and flyovers belong to?

Invisible spaces

What any process of beautification does is that it makes the city available for use for only one kind of people. It segregates the space and in Mumbai, where land is a contentious issue, any time one section of the population begins accessing, using or enjoying a particular space, it infringes on the rights of another section that was using it earlier.

This segregation via beautification is best exemplified by the developments in Lower Parel in midtown, especially on Tulsi Pipe Road, along the two long flyovers from Dadar Station to Phoenix Mills. There, the former mills of Mumbai are being replaced by malls, coffee shops and overpriced design stores that claim to be sustainable while offering products that can only be afforded by those whose lifestyles are anything but. Then there is the plan that will allow the Ballard Estate area, in south Mumbai, to have coffee shops on the pavements, a suggestion that might make design sense in France or Italy, but in India will only further divide the existing space along class lines.

Flyovers have different impacts in different areas. I like taking long walks in Mumbai, often from Dadar to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Among numerous options, two ways to do this is via Byculla under JJ flyover and via Dockyard Road under the Eastern Express Freeway. The former, while by no means a perfect walk, is a safe and interesting one because the space under the flyover is lively and exciting. On the other hand, the latter goes through abandoned road after abandoned road and makes for a dull, depressing and unsafe walk.

There are many reasons for this: Dockyard Road has numerous warehouses and few offices or restaurants, and huge buses are parked next to the pavement, preventing a walker from seeing what comes next. Another reason is that Muhammad Ali Road was first built for people and pedestrians before it was built for cars. Dockyard Road has always been a road meant for cars, a situation only exacerbated by the freeway running over it, which ensures that no one needs to use or see the space under it.

In City Bypassed, a documentary by Dr Ayonna Dutta of the University of Leeds, Professor Abdul Shaban of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences points out how when flyovers are built, “you do not want to see certain sections of the population, so they become invisible and you fly over them”. A point made all the more resonant by a news story about the murder of a young boy in Wadala. After a police team and his father searched everywhere for the body, it was eventually located under the freeway. His father was quoted as saying in the Indian Express: “For so many days, I had been under the freeway looking for my son but never did it strike me that my boy could have been dumped under the freeway.”

Afraid of encroachments

In Dadar, there has always been a slight unease with the people under the flyover. Two traffic signals away from where the process of beautification is taking place, there is a crossover under the Dadar TT flyover where the residents, the authorities and the homeless had been locked in battle. For a brief while, the space was also used as an informal garbage dump. Eventually, fences were built, empty spaces were boarded up and the people without homes were driven away.

As far back as I can remember, from a childhood spent growing up in the city till now, there have been people living on and around Tilak Bridge – one of the busiest bridges in the city. There have also been people selling fruits, flowers and vegetables under the bridge, the prices of which are much cheaper than the ones offered by the overground grocers. Often, I have been told, that the people on and under the bridge are in fact, much richer than they seem to be, and own flats in faraway parts of the city. Or that if we allow them to inhabit these spaces, “they will come anytime they want but never leave”, to paraphrase the popular Eagles’ song.

These beliefs have allowed us to not acknowledge them or create the spaces they inhabit any safer. Instead, we seek to push them further away into the land of the unknown, into places where we might not see them anymore. But we still need them to come into the city. For they are the same people who work in construction, among other sectors, and build homes in the same city that denies them one.

In her final book Dark Age Ahead, journalist Jane Jacobs wrote, “Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.” The observation wouldn’t be out of place in Mumbai. Despite the fact that close to 90% of the city’s population uses public transport or walks for the daily commute, the city’s planners persist in designing the city around the automobile. The coastal road that few in the city want and/or need is just an instance of this.

Benefiting the city

There are already many gardens in the spaces underneath the flyovers of Mumbai. Near the Small Causes Court in Bandra, there is a row of plants that no one in the city can enjoy because the pillars are too low and there are no benches upon which to sit. The city would be better served if public spaces were designed so that a maximum number of people could use it.

In Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl, Kamu Iyer describes English architect Claude Batley’s plan suggesting that cross streets that had little or no traffic could be used as sleeping places at night and said that “not a single one of public gardens, should be barred at night”, for a similar reason. In 1968, Charles Correa took this idea further and drew a plan that modified pavements of main roads to allow for hawkers during the day and pavement sleepers at night. According to Iyer, “Batley mooted an idea but Correa made a feasible proposal. Both showed that public space could be used and shared in different ways depending on the time of day.”

The space below the Bandra Reclamation flyover has become an open defecation ground. Wouldn’t the city benefit if it could be used for public toilets of some kind? Or if the space under the flyover could somehow be converted to usable homeless shelters?

In this clip on YouTube, one of the women displaced from the communities near Deonar talks of her experience of being part of a group who filled up a 100-metre-deep well with mud and stones and began living there. After the hard work of filling the pit was done, the municipal corporation stepped in and announced that they would be building a garden in the same place. “What kind of people will come to play here, by displacing us?” she asks.

It all comes down to what Indians define as success. In addition to everything the American Dream consists of (good looking spouse, big house, two children, a few cars, etc.), the Indian variant consists of two main things: firstly, that you will be rich enough to rise above the poverty and suffering that exists all around, and secondly, that you will be powerful enough to be able to evade bureaucratic or legal processes that might impede this growth. The city has made this avoidance of the poor a matter of public policy. Will it change its ways?